Virtual analog synthesizers may dominate the market these days, but many producers still crave the true analog sound. Anyone who's heard the velveteen tone of a vintage Moog filter or the gorgeous pads of a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 knows that digital technology comes close but still doesn't quite fully reproduce that elusive old-school analog flavor.
Even at inflated collectors' prices, many decent vintage synths are much cheaper than new-fangled analog dreams like the three-grand Alesis Andromeda. However, much of the analog zeitgeist was created in pre-MIDI days, when synthesizers were designed in accordance with several noncompatible sequencing standards and voltage-controlled sequencers were the only option.
Banking on the still-fiery interest in vintage analog synths, Kansas company FutureRetro (maker of the FR-777 monophonic synth) has created Mobius, a catchall monophonic sequencer that works with both MIDI and all types of CV/gate synthesizers, thereby bringing the digital and analog worlds together. Now, you can have your analog and sequence it too!
A TWIST IN THE FABRIC OF SEQUENCING
Step sequencing is fairly intuitive and ubiquitous in dance-music gear such as the Roland Groovebox series, Korg Electribe series, Propellerhead Reason, and other products. For those who are not familiar with the technique, step sequencing generally involves the use of 16 horizontally placed buttons that represent the 16th notes in one measure of 4/4 music. On the Mobius, you can also make 3/4 patterns of 12 notes per measure. To program a pattern, simply press the button for the desired location in the measure where you want to trigger a note. For example, the kick drum in a standard four-on-the-floor beat would correspond to buttons 1, 5, 9, and 13.
Mobius patterns are transposable by ±36 half steps. Each step of a pattern holds the note value (from C1 to D#6), the accent and glide information, and whether that step is a loop point for that pattern. You can't input notes via a MIDI keyboard, nor are the buttons in octave formation as they are on the Roland TB-303. Instead, you must scroll through the note values on the small four-digit LED menu. You can also assign an accent or a glide to any note that is playing. To get a note to sustain, simply hold down the key for the start point, then press the last point at which you want the note to sustain. For example, if you want a note to last the entire measure, hold down the 1 and then press 16.
At first, I expected this sequencing method would be tedious and frustrating. However, after I spent a short time getting acquainted with the system, the patterns began flowing rapidly. In fact, Mobius's strength lies in its simplicity, as it allows you to let go of whatever you know about music theory and concentrate instead on a pattern's groove. It also forces you to rely more on your ears: some patterns that seemed mediocre with a bass patch were perfect with other sounds. One of my throwaway bass-line patterns made excellent ear candy with a fluttery highpass filter patch, whereas some of my smoother patterns became the buzzy Access Virus A bass line for a down-tempo track.
Once you're in the programming zone, you must remember that all changes you make to a pattern are automatically saved. This is useful for a live performance when you want to improvise on the spot and not lose the changes. However, if you have a pattern you really like but want to make a variation, you first have to copy the pattern and then paste it to a new location. If you don't, you may mess with the original to a point where it's tough to edit backward to the starting point. Also, many Mobius functions require multiple button pressings, which can catch you off your toes. I once accidentally pasted over a few choice patterns, thinking that I was transposing them. If the Mobius had a Manual Save function, I wouldn't have lost them. It would be ideal to have two modes of step sequencing: one that automatically saves all changes, and one that requires a Manual Save function.
The Mobius provides 16 banks, each containing 16 patterns, for a total of 256 one-measure patterns. I prefer having pattern length selectable between one and four measures; that way, you don't have to string as many patterns together in song mode. Because Mobius provides only one-measure patterns, its memory is not incredibly vast. You can scroll through all the patterns at 120 bpm in less than nine minutes. If you run out of memory, you can save patterns as well as songs to another sequencer with a SysEx dump. You can also interchange them with the FR-777. Unfortunately, you can't save sequences as Standard MIDI Files; otherwise, you could germinate an idea on the Mobius and flesh it out in a more advanced software sequencer.
Each of the 16 songs can be as long as 3,580 patterns, but it would take the patience of a monk to program something of that length. Stringing patterns together to make songs on the Mobius definitely is tedious. FutureRetro could help out by adding a Clear Song function that would allow you to erase whole songs at once. Instead, you must write your new song over a preset song by stepping through each measure and selecting the bank and pattern you wish to place there. That's easy enough, but if the preset song has a pattern in Bank 12 at the location where you want to use a pattern from Bank 2, you have to scroll all the way back to Bank 2 for each and every pattern of a song. The menu won't even let you take the shortcut of scrolling up through Bank 16 and back to Bank 1. Also, song mode doesn't allow you to copy and paste patterns, so the thought of constructing a song hundreds of measures long, one measure at a time, is a little off-putting.
What's good about song mode is that you can transpose a pattern from its original pitch. This conserves pattern locations because you can use the same pattern in a song at as many different transposition settings as you like. To play back songs, you can set a loop point at any location in a song, or you can string songs together to play in succession.
GET YOURSELF CONNECTED
Mobius's coup de grâce is its selection of outputs that enable you to sequence just about any voltage-controlled analog synth ever made. Seven ¼-inch output jacks on the front panel provide the analog sequencing, syncing, and triggering: two types of control voltage (CV) outputs — volts per octave (V/Oct) and hertz per volt (Hz/V) — gate (switchable from positive to negative), trigger, accent, clock, and reset. If you don't understand what all these outputs are for, the short but thorough manual breaks it down in easy-to-understand language.
Most analog synths use either V/Oct or Hz/V with a positive or negative gate type. The Mobius's manual lists the settings you'd most likely use for ARP, Korg, Moog, Roland, Sequential Circuits, and Yamaha analog synths. If you're using a synth not listed, you'll need to consult that product's manual. In my tests, the Mobius successfully controlled every analog keyboard I could throw at it, specifically a Korg Mono/Poly, Moog Source, Roland SH-101, and Sequential Circuits Pro-One. It was amazing to finally be able to program tight sequences with these machines rather than having to sample them or record performances straight to hard disk. Although you could spend a lot of money outfitting your analog synths with MIDI retrofits, it's more economical to use the Mobius to control your machines. The drawback is that you can control only one synth at a time.
The Mobius also has MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports on the back panel, so it is able to sequence a MIDI synth, send MIDI clock to sync slave devices, or receive MIDI clock to sync to an external sequencer. Also on the back is a DIN Sync connection that will sync the Mobius to DIN devices such as the Roland TR-808 and TB-303. Unfortunately, the Mobius is configured for rack mounting and is not set up for tabletop use out of the box. FutureRetro does sell a Desktop Attachment kit for $20 that allows you to place the unit on a tabletop instead.
The Mobius also features a built-in MIDI-to-CV converter, which means — miracle of miracles — MIDI control over non-MIDI analog gear. Hook your MIDI controller up to the Mobius, connect the Mobius to an analog synth, and you're in business. However, this scenario reveals where the limitations of the Mobius's monophonic design are felt the most. For example, you can't play any thick Jupiter 8 chords through the Mobius. Also, you can't play any of the Mobius's sequenced patterns when using the unit as a MIDI-to-CV converter. Even though there are other MIDI-to-CV converters on the market, the Mobius's additional sequencing features make it a considerable bargain.
THERE IS THIS THEORY
FutureRetro has looped time with the Mobius by creating a reliable, modern digital sequencer that consolidates, improves upon, and ultimately revives old sequencing techniques, making them once again relevant and effectively breathing new life into aging gear. It may have many idiosyncrasies, but there's something sublime about rediscovering old synths and getting into the Mobius sequencer's simple beauty. If you have non-MIDI analog gear you'd like to incorporate into a MIDI-fied live or studio setup, the Mobius is the feel-good gear of the year.
PROS: Analog and MIDI sequencing. Controls pre-MIDI analog synths and drum machines. MIDI-to-CV converter. Simple and fun pattern editing.
CONS: Monophonic. Cumbersome song editing. Not tabletop-ready out of the box. Won't export Standard MIDI Files.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4